At last: a story that isn’t about COVID-19! Instead, it’s about movies; the US Department of Defense; the People’s Republic of China; and a bill, introduced last week by US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), with an absurdly tone-deaf name.
The bill is known by its acronym, SCRIPT. Here’s how Cruz touted it on Twitter.
The SCRIPT Act will serve as a wake-up call by forcing Hollywood studios to choose between the assistance they need from the American government and the dollars they want from China: https://t.co/EmqdC5H012— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) April 28, 2020
Not so bad, right? But wait: Here’s the full name of the proposed act.
Yes, it’s the “Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity, and Protecting Talkies” Act.
Imagine coming up with SCRIPT (in the first place: why?) and then having to reverse-engineer an acronym (that is, a backronym) for it. You get all the way to T and you’re stumped. What are we protecting? Truth? Trust? Trademarks? Taste? Taxes? Telecommunications? Twinkies?
No, ma’am: We’re protecting talkies, because although the calendar says 2020 we are evidently still drinking bathtub gin and saying “23 skidoo!”
Talkie, short for “talking picture,” was coined around 1913, when the prospect of films with soundtracks was a glimmer on the horizon. It echoes movie—short for “moving picture”—which had first appeared in print in 1909. (Both terms arose in North America; the Brits came up with flick, short for flicker, in the 1920s. Walkie-talkie, a two-way mobile communication system, first appeared in 1939 in US military circles.) The OED categorizes talkie as “now historical.” In other words, no one uses it except Ted Cruz and his unlucky staffers.
Short talkies were produced in the early and mid-1920s, but the first full-length film presented as a talkie was The Jazz Singer (1927). The film’s star, Al Jolson, delivered his famous catchphrase—“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”—which took on added resonance.
I lied a little when I said that this was a non-pandemic post, because Cruz’s bill is expediently timed to take advantage of recent anti-Chinese sentiment ginned up by the president and his supporters. Breitbart News is still calling COVID-19 “the Chinese coronavirus”; Politico reports that “the strategy to blame China” has spread from the White House to the rest of the country. How soon we forget: Not so long ago, the president was praising the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, for declaring himself president for life. (“I think that’s great,” Trump said in 2018. “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”)
Of course, Senator Cruz is no stranger to political expedience. Remember when then-candidate Trump called him “Lyin’ Ted” and said scurrilous things about Cruz’s wife and father? And when Cruz called Trump “a sniveling coward” and “a pathological liar”? Bygones! Cruz is now one of Trump’s biggest sycophants fans.
Backronyms are rife in government—see this Visual Thesaurus column of mine for more examples—and not all of them are as cringeworthy as SCRIPT. The CARES Act, passed by the US Congress in March of this year, is pretty good: It stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security. But exhuming an archaic slang term like talkies to fill out your backronym bingo card isn’t clever or helpful. It’s just desperate.